Perfect pitch: Soundtracking the beautiful game

From Italia '90 to Euro 2016, finding the music to match the football footage is an art


When Marco Tardelli put Italy 2-0 up against West Germany with just 21 minutes left to play in the 1982 World Cup Final, he broke into a semi-circular sprint towards the Italian bench. His fists pumping manically, his eyes welling up and his mouth wide open in utter exultation, he screamed something primal before he disappeared under a sea of Azzurri. “L’urlo di Tardelli” (the Tardelli scream) is now part of the fabric of Italian culture.

Before Italia ’90, a young BBC sports producer, Philip Bernie, knew he was going to use the Tardelli celebration in the station’s opening segment for the tournament. As he watched Tardelli over and over again in slow motion, he realised that the only music which would do justice to the majesty of the celebration was something operatic.

He chose an aria from the final act of Puccini’s Turandot which finishes with the tenor singing “Vincero” (I will win) on an almost impossibly sustained A4 note. He was probably unaware that Puccini and Tardelli both hail from the same small province, Lucca, in the Tuscany region.

A generation of football fans who had only ever been previously exposed to Barry Stoller’s too loud and too brassy Match of the Day theme were now hearing the beautiful game soundtracked by beautiful music.

If it is indeed correct that an intellectual can be defined as someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger, then a football fan can be defined as someone who is unable to listen to Puccini’s Nessun Dorma without thinking of Packie Bonner’s save and Gazza’s tears.

The midfield musical diamond of Tardelli/Bernie/Puccini/Pavarotti forever changed the tactical approach of how football is televised. For European Championships and World Cups in particular, the TV bosses now want a “Vincero” moment. Having tired of the nice bit of opera, we now have our major football tournaments soundtracked by anything and everything from some maudlin Britpop ballad to some recherche neo-psychedelia.

If death and taxes are life’s own certainties, you can add either ITV or BBC playing Oasis’s Stop Crying Your Eyes Out when England is knocked out of a major tournament to that list. And if your name is Charles Dumont, you can start subscribing to Private Jet Monthly as Dumont wrote the classic Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien which may get hundreds of thousands of plays this summer in France.

Nobody remembers, though, the other inspired musical montage provided by Italia ’90. Cameroon became the first African nation to reach the World Cup quarter-finals, and only missed out on a semi-final spot after an extra-time loss to England. To celebrate their joyous progress, the BBC cut a musical montage that is the template still used by broadcasters today.

Soundtracked by Gaiende The Lion by Youssou N’Dour (we’ll skip over the fact that N’Dour is from Senegal), it has a celebratory melody complete with appropriate lyrics (“We’re shaking the tree . . .”) and it complemented the visuals of “Les Lions Indomptables” perfectly.

Of the opening and closing montages, Eugene O’Neill, executive editor (football) at RTÉ says, “Music is selected on the basis of what works best for the piece – this could be a style of music to match the mood/tempo/style of the shots or it could be a commercial track”.

As for RTÉ’s plans for Euro 2016, O’Neill says, “Everyone involved is always thinking of music that might work on an insert or elsewhere in the programme. It becomes a bit of an obsession.”

O’Neill remembers how after the opening group match at Euro 2012, when Ireland lost 3-1 to Croatia, “I thought we might well struggle in that game so we wanted something to offer hope in the closing montage and be a bit positive – after all, we weren’t out of the tournament, there were still two groups games to be played. In the latter part of the qualifying campaign I had heard Keep Your Head Up by Ben Howard and even though we had set aside music for an Ireland win against Croatia, Ben Howard worked.”

Adam Maynard, an ITV sports producer, says, “Whether it’s a boisterous, lively track for an opening piece or something more laid-back and emotive for a closing montage, we find the music choice is often more important than the pictures. If the track choice doesn’t work, the whole piece won’t work,” he says.

Producers at ITV Sport often spend part of their working day listening to music and samples. “It is often good to use new, unheard tracks on montages to stay current and fresh, and music labels such as Ninja Tune or promoters like Shoot Music often send their new releases direct to us to listen to and use. But an old, classic track, or a more obscure, different sound, can often work well and help the piece.”

As for what to expect on ITV during Euro 2016, Maynard says, “A producer will certainly create their own library of tracks that may work in certain pieces and keep them with them for the next piece to be made. Some VT will be pre planned, but as the tournament evolves and new stories appear, the editorial will change and the producer will adapt to make the right music fit the piece they are creating.”

As an example of what sort of precision is required, Maynard points to the closing musical montage ITV used at the last World Cup: “You have two and a half minutes to sum up an entire tournament; it means the montage has to be snappy and quickly cut, but the track we used also had to sum up the buzz and happiness of what was a great tournament it was.

“The Crystal Fighters with LA Calling had a nice mix of pace and lyrics, including lines such as “all around the world” which help combine the pictures and music, and in more depth the lyric “I want you” when Brazil’s starlet Neymar got injured and stretchered off – so the lyrics tell the story to lift the montage.”

“In the same World Cup, a huge game for England saw them face Uruguay. The opening montage had to portray the energy and passion surrounding it. The X Ambassadors & Jamie N Commons featuring Jay Z song Follow Me was chosen. The lyrics ‘follow me, into the jungle’ told the story that the players and fans watching were heading into a big game together”.

Ian Finch, senior producer at BBC Sport, says: “Music for montages within the programmes tend to be chosen by the producer who is cutting the sequence. We are sent both new releases and tournament-specific tracks for consideration, but sometimes it might just be a tune that a producer has unearthed and works perfectly with the mood of the piece and the images used.”

For Euro 2016, Finch says, “there are a few potential ideas we have in mind, but it all depends on what happens in the tournament. I’m sure there will be a track in mind if one of the home nations crashes out, but I don’t think anyone really wants to think about that at this stage.”

Getting it right can either be down to hours of research or a moment of inspiration. “When England qualified for the 2002 World Cup we went off air with a great closing sequence cut to Ewan McGregor’s version of Your Song which still rates as one of the best-received by the public” says Finch. “If one of the home nations makes it to the final, I’ve always wanted to use We’re Almost There from Michael Jackson’s 1975 solo debut. If you hear that over the summer, then things are looking good.”

Memo to RTÉ: there’s a very fine version of David Bowie singing Heroes in French out there . . .

Tops (and flops) of the Pops

Anyone can throw music at football to see if it sticks, but to produce the sound and vision moment that captures the essence of a major footballing tournament is an art form in itself.

When the Republic of Ireland “won” 1-1 against Germany in Gelsenkirchen in October 2014, RTÉ found a riveting version of David Bowie (below) singing Heroes in German that got it in one. Following their Nessun Dorma triumph at Italia ’90, the BBC were under pressure to come up with the goods for USA ’94. They used Sondheim and Bernstein’s intoxicating America from West Side Story.

When England were expecting football to be coming home at Euro ’96 but instead went out to the Germans on penalties in the semi-finals, the BBC put Cast’s beautiful ballad Walkaway over their farewell footage. Grown men wept.

For the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, ITV managed to reflect the fact that this was the first World Cup to be held on the African continent. Local singer Vusi Mahlasela’s When You Come Back fitted perfectly and Marco Tardelli’s goal celebration got a welcome encore in the footage.

For their package looking back at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, RTÉ summed up a nation’s feelings by using Green Day’s Good Riddance (Time of Your Life). The lyric “So make the best of this test and don’t ask why/It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time” rang true.

To close their coverage of the 1998 World Cup, the BBC’s Des Lynam narrated Rudyard Kipling’s poem If as though reading out the teleprinter result of a Hamilton Academicals vs Arbroath match. Quite stunningly awful.

For the 1998 World Cup, ITV fancied themselves a bit of Puccini, except they went for the Opera Babes, who stripped all the emotion and meaning out of Un Bel Di (One Fine Day) from Madama Butterfly.

“It’s Italy’s pain as the reign of Spain continued in Ukraine,” said Gary Lineker to mark the BBC’s farewell to Euro 2012. But it was only to get worse: an anaemic version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller was put over the montage.

For their closing montage at the Euros in 2008, the BBC went the traditional route of having a fly (yes, a fly) read out a poem about only living for the month the tournament was on: “I only lived for one month, but how I lived.”

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